Clarence Thomas' greatest sin was that he wasn't the second coming of civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall and had no interest in pretending to be.
Because of that, he had no room to acknowledge the faintest human weakness without assisting in the destruction of his Supreme Court nomination.
So the incendiary Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of 20 autumns ago couldn't have revealed truth -- they were about which side would emerge victorious from a searing political battle.
Explicit sexual language. Racial tensions. Gender skirmishing. Self-righteous, preening politicians. No wonder the Thomas-Hill hearings caught public attention. Thank goodness Nancy Grace wasn't around.
In the end, both Thomas and Anita Hill, two people with admirable personal stories embodying the American dream, wound up permanently scarred.
Thomas took his seat (by a 52-48 vote) as the second African-American ever on the Supreme Court. More women felt empowered to report sexual harassment in the workplace, and more women won seats in Congress. But the price for that social change was steep. The judicial confirmation process deteriorated further.
Hardly anyone who wasn't there in 1991 remembers that there was an earlier round of hearings on whether Thomas should be confirmed. President George H.W. Bush had disingenuously advertised Thomas -- who'd worked in the Education Department and headed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, then spent 16 months on a federal appeals court -- as the best-qualified person for the court. But the nomination was meant to appease hard-liners who didn't consider David Souter reliably conservative enough when he was confirmed the previous year.
Thomas' first hearing opened Sept. 10, and senators questioned him over the course of five days.
There was nothing riveting about Democrats trying to pin down his elusive views on abortion. Thomas ludicrously claimed that even though he was attending Yale Law School in 1973 when the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, he hadn't discussed the decision.
He also sidled away from outspoken positions he had taken while a Reagan administration official, such as opposing affirmative action programs and endorsing "natural law," the concept of individual rights deriving from a higher authority than the Constitution.
The Judiciary Committee voted 7-7, sending the nomination to the full Senate with no recommendation.
But when two reporters extracted information that Hill had told Judiciary Committee investigators and the FBI, an explosive second round of hearings opened the Friday of Columbus Day weekend.
Hill, then a law professor in Oklahoma, calmly testified that when she had worked for Thomas a decade earlier at two federal agencies, he had repeatedly asked her out, described pornographic movies and boasted about his sexual prowess. Friends she told at the time corroborated her account.
Thomas flatly denied the allegations, turning the tables on the all-white Senate panel with references to "lynching." Republican senators ruthlessly attacked Hill's credibility.
Surely neither Hill nor Thomas anticipated the dizzying spectacle or the contempt hurled at them from total strangers.
Having sat in the hearing room during the testimony, I still believe it was more complicated than a case of one telling the truth and the other lying.
My theory is that reality lies somewhere between: Hill's distress over the events might have intensified over time; when Senate staffers asked her about him, she decided to talk about flaws in the man she knew. Whatever Thomas' reading of what may have happened between them, the climate gave him no leeway to say, "I'm sorry she took things that way," or "I'm human, but none of this disqualifies me from the Supreme Court." And he had no intention of bowing to what he considered liberal elites.
It's interesting now to see that Thomas said something at the first set of hearings that isn't consistent with his performance as a justice: "You cannot simply, because you have the votes, begin to change rules, to change a precedent," I quoted him in the Chicago Tribune as saying. But as a justice, he's been willing to overturn precedents simply because he believes they're wrong.
The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin recently pointed out that the court has shifted to positions Thomas staked out years ago in such volatile areas as gun rights and free speech for corporations. In a 1995 opinion, he said the court should temper its recognition of broad congressional power to regulate interstate commerce. Opponents of the healthcare reform law are hoping that the court will follow his lead on that, too.
It would be, Toobin wrote, "the clearest test yet of Thomas's ascendancy at the Court."